COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republicans in the Ohio House can't stop fighting with each other.
After the past few contentious years in the state, it's not uncommon to see a scuffle on the House floor. What isn't common is that a public fight took place between members of the same party.
Since the beginning of the year, the House Republican Caucus has been split in two.
Back in November, the GOP caucus voted for Derek Merrin (R-Monclova) to be speaker. But during the full House vote in December, more moderate state Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) won after he collaborated with the Democrats.
Since the kerfuffle, Merrin’s team has promised to fight against Stephens. That was evident during what should have been a typically easy procedural day to vote on the leadership roles or House rules, such as what time the session begins.
New state Rep. Josh Williams (R-Oregon) is part of the Merrin camp — and had something to say on the chamber floor.
"Literally my blood was boiling," Williams said to News 5. "To go on the floor in front of a speaker selected by the Democrats and to once again, have my voice ignored, as not only an insult to the constitutional rights that I have as a legislator but also to be a voice of a generation of Black conservatives."
Williams had two amendments he wanted to bring forward. He wanted to replace Rep. Jon Cross (R-Kenton) with Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) for the assistant majority floor leader role and he wanted to change a specific rule dealing with quorums.
Williams, and many others within his group, shouted out to Stephens, objecting to moving forward without hearing their amendments. Stephens skipped over him.
"Even if you properly stand up and operate within the rules and you are the most educated on a particular subject, we are going to ignore you and we are going to continue to operate under traditions that were made before individuals that looked like you were even present in the House,'" Williams, who is a constitutional law professor, said. "That hurt to my core."
Republican state Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), a supporter of Stephens, said he never wanted anyone to feel that way, and he has been skipped by speakers many times. But this wasn't personal to Williams, he said, but rather reading the proposals showed the Stephens team it was all theatrics.
"They wanted chaos on the floor," the Athens County lawmaker said. "They were just trying to create controversy and maybe get their name in the paper or get on the news."
The rules were given to the Merrin team at least 24 hours in advance, that way they could propose changes internally, he added.
Plus, some of the amendments were planted to stir up drama, he said.
Ohio: Church and Guns?
Two of the proposed rules stuck out to Edwards. News 5 was sent documents of both, each created by state Rep. Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville).
The first would require a Christian prayer at the beginning of the session.
"I thought that was kind of despicable," said Edwards. "We have Jewish people that serve in the Legislature. Are we now saying that rabbis around Columbus or around Ohio aren't allowed to come back?"
Democrats were also outraged by this proposal. State Reps. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson), Ismail Mohamed (D-Columbus), Munira Yasin Abdullahi (D-Columbus), Anita Somani (D-Dublin) and Dani Isaacsohn (D-Cincinnati) all denounced the effort by Ferguson. Weinstein and Isaacsohn are both Jewish. Abdullahi and Mohamed are Muslim. Somani is Hindu.
"This shameful amendment was not only unconstitutional, but it was also a slap in the face to the millions of non-Christian Ohioans who call this state their home and are helping it grow,” the House Democrats said.
My colleagues and I have released a statement on yesterday’s shenanigans. We’re not letting attempts to undermine our unity and the dignity of our constituents pass by unscathed. pic.twitter.com/6nvnydWmsC— Rep. Munira Yasin Abdullahi (@muniraforohio) January 25, 2023
Edwards is a proud Christian, he said, but the Statehouse is "the people's house" and people in Ohio are diverse.
"It was more of 'what can we do to press a hot button issue to try to get our name out there and act like maybe these people aren't Christians if they're against it,'" he said.
The second proposal would allow lawmakers to carry guns in the Statehouse and on the floor.
"You're not going to find more pro-Second Amendment than me," he said. "However, I don't like carve-outs or special laws for lawmakers."
If he was seen voting against this, it may be used against him to pretend he is anti-firearms, he added.
News 5 reached out to Ferguson to get his reaction and is awaiting his response.
Skipping the amendments was a bad idea, Williams said.
"You do not violate the Constitution just because you believe a certain amendment doesn't have the votes to pass," Williams argued. "The solution is you allow a member to move to amend, you vote down the amendment and then he has to report to his district why he proposed that amendment — period."
The Constitution allows for members to object, and Stephens ignoring the objections broke the rules, he said.
"The Constitution doesn't say that a single member has the right to object unless they're politically motivated in their objection, or unless their objection is absurd," he added. "It doesn't say that."
Technically, the law also allows Stephens to choose when voting begins — so he can choose to go right to voting, as the speaker actually argued on the floor.
“It’s time for Ohio to get to work," Stephens told reporters. "I mean, you can look at the amendments, and it’s time for Ohio to get to work.”
Merrin's team was acting like they were silenced when they weren’t, Edwards said.
"I think about 60%... closer to 70% of the rules brought forward were met by Speaker Stevens and put into the rules package," he said. "I actually think even if we got it perfect, the goalposts would have been moved further down the road because it was about causing chaos."
But a change from Stephens tried to fly under the radar, Williams said.
Rule 64 would allow the Rules and Reference Committee to recall any bill or resolution after the bill has already been referred to or is being heard in a separate committee. The recalled bill could either be moved to Rules and Reference or to another committee. There was already a process to do this, but this is just a streamlined version.
For Williams, this is a huge problem because Stephens controls the Rules and Reference Committee.
"The committee was just given power, and it's controlled by the speaker, to take anybody's legislation and hold it hostage," he said.
There's a way to get it discharged from Rules and Reference, but it is time-consuming and difficult, he said.
"I think people are going to be pleased when they find out that Speaker Stevens isn't going to, at least from what he's told me, he's not going to just control every bill," said Edwards. "He's going to give these committee chairmen the flexibility to do what they need to do."
But the change serves another purpose than just streamlining the original process.
The House keeps seeing "rogue amendments" make it into bills and they "completely change the dynamic," Edwards said.
He then gave an example, "In lame duck, we had a bill about the state school board that ended up being about 'Saving women's sports,' that ended up being about vaccine mandates. Quite frankly, that's a lot of different topics. And so all of a sudden that bill might not be appropriate to be in the K-12 committee, it may need to be in multiple committees."
Plus, the House has had issues where money was put into a bill. The Finance Committee wanted to have the bill, since they deal with money, but the chairman did not want to send it back, he said.
This is especially of interest to Edwards because he is the Finance Committee chair.
The Merrin team has been holding meetings without the Stephens members. In a meeting on Tuesday morning, one in which Stephens' team members declined to attend, the 45 lawmakers chose Merrin as Chair of the Ohio House Republican Caucus. Plummer was elected Chair of the Ohio House Republican Alliance (OHRA) campaign committee.
"The funds through OHRA are to be distributed according to the caucus," said Williams. "So the caucus is in control of OHRA, not the speaker. The Republican caucus is in control by the caucus members, not the speaker."
Stephens disagreed with this, telling reporters that the campaign arm is run by him. Edwards rolled his eyes at the idea that the Merrin team controls the money.
"It's quite frustrating to see some of the people saying they're running the caucus are the same ones that don't give money to the caucus," Edwards said, referencing a specific "third-faction" leader. "It is frustrating to see the exact people trying to tear apart the team are the ones that haven't been the team players in the past."
Ohio seemingly has a three-party system in effect — Democrats, Stephens' team and Merrin's team. But if you ask some conservative Republicans, they consider members who voted for Stephens to be Democrats.
Stephens collaborating with the Democrats and making deals with them to get their votes makes him reliant on them, Williams said.
"You literally make deals behind closed doors in order to get power, and now you're changing the rules in order to support that power, so you can support the deals you made," he added. "Does that not sound like something that someone's on trial for right now?"
Edwards is sick of hearing the Larry Householder comparisons, saying Stephens and also himself (since some remain skeptical about him due to his close relationship with the former speaker) are nothing like the accused.
It wasn't just Stephens talking with Democrats to try to snag their votes, Merrin did too, just unsuccessfully, Edwards added.
"The other faction of the Republicans got way more [of the rules they wanted], even though the Democrats weren't causing chaos," he said.
Stephens even indulged the Merrin crowd with some more odd rules, like including that the speaker is not able to take any members' parking spots away. That was never even a thought, but it was granted to appease them, Edwards said.
All Williams wants is to be able to do good for his constituents and Ohio as a whole, plus have the other lawmakers follow the Constitution.
He spoke to News 5 about all the procedures that were not being followed by the current — and also former — general assemblies. He read direct quotes in laws and provided examples of how these weren't being followed. An example was how his second proposal would have prevented lawmakers from introducing bills right before going into summer break — since it should be done with a specific quorum during a voting session. This wasn't super popular and a few of his attorney colleagues didn't want it raised, he admitted.
"I'm not here to be a career politician, I'm here to bring change," he said. "And the first change that I need to bring is within our own house."
There is a caucus retreat coming up that he is looking forward to, he said. There, the GOP members may get closer to unity, he added.
"I'm pretty sure there's going to be some conversations behind closed doors that we wouldn't want to be in public — that's where the gloves come off," Williams added. "I think yesterday was just a demonstration of what's going to happen in the House moving forward."
For Edwards, he sees the tides turning.
"I think once the committee process starts up, a lot of these factions will die down," he said. "We'll get to work on real issues facing our constituents."
Eventually, the rules were able to be confirmed because the Democrats, once again, sided with Stephens. Eight Republicans who previously voted for Merrin for speaker also approved the rules, so it was a 63-35 vote.
"It's unfortunate when you have some, though, that would rather create chaos as opposed to trying to build unity and be a team player and try to get stuff done for the district," Edwards said. "They have every right to try to cause the chaos they want to cause. But as they are causing the chaos, they're not spending their appropriate time working on the policy issues that matter to their constituents or the policy issues that they're actually experts on."
It's a shame that people in Merrin's corner won't come together, because the party would be better with their expertise, Edwards added.
Until then, Democrats will sit and watch the chaos and journalists will continue to get emails from two different Republicans claiming to be the Ohio House GOP leader.